Columnist: 'Rustbelt' to 'Legacy' - Rethinking Old Cities' Potential

by Neal Peirce

"Rustbelt" is out. "Legacy" is in. 

For years, we've needed a new word for the arc of cities and regions, stretching from the Northeast to the Great Lakes, so deeply damaged by decades of vanishing factories, abandoned properties and alarming population loss.

Now, a new report and book, "Rebuilding America's Legacy Cities," gives us a way out. Looking deeply into the plights of our Youngstowns and Toledos, Detroits and Flints, it's the report of the 110th session of the American Assembly, the nonpartisan political forum founded 62 years ago by Dwight D. Eisenhower when he was president of Columbia University.

The Assembly, held last spring in Detroit, actually had a spirited debate about applying the "legacy" word to the hard-hit cities. Some suggested "legacy" meant something from the past that's outdated, such as "legacy software," outmoded cost structures or fragmented governance.

But Henry Cisneros, the Assembly co-chair and former secretary of housing and urban development, painted a highly positive view of the legacy of these cities at a late January forum on release of the session's report. Many of these historic industrial cities, he noted, gave the North the arms and men it needed to win the Civil War. The factories of Akron, Flint, Buffalo and Rochester were crucial to America winning World War II. Detroit was long synonymous with American industrial strength. 

And even today, Cisneros argued, "we can't afford to lose the potential of these legacy cities." They're great "human capital multipliers" with their prestigious universities, medical services and foundations. They are staging locations for new immigrant talent, laboratories for a more compact and efficient "built environment," places where America's equity agenda can be advanced. They hold billions of dollars of "sunk" (established in-place) infrastructure. 

The timeliness is compelling. A new American consensus is demanding we make more in America, import less, create jobs here. We may be on the verge of more targeted direct government subsidies for strategic startup industries, to counter the inducements that China and other countries offer.

This could well translate into comeback potential for the legacy cities with their rich industrial history. "We have the land. We can quickly put a half-million square feet under a roof, developing a new industry," said Hunter Morrison, director of the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium. "Our communities know how to make things. It's part of our DNA."

But there's a major hurdle: creating a level playing field in our metro regions, so that legacy cities can rise to new opportunities. The key obstacle here is often a state government. Legally, cities are creatures of the states. But as Lavea Brachman, executive director of the Greater Ohio Policy Center, notes in the new "Legacy Cities" report:

"State laws, regulations and policies establish the rules for what cities can and cannot do and set the stage for how and where development occurs." And all too often, they've "stacked the deck against central cities" by "perpetuating fragmented local governance, encouraging cities to compete with cities for business and economic development" - in effect "incentivizing greenfield development over the reuse of urban sites."

The "Legacy Cities" report suggests a turnaround: to give center cities, including those areas around their economic anchors of universities and medical complexes, strong preference in state funding for transportation, sewer and water facilities; to make local city-suburb government mergers much easier; and to encourage regional revolving loan funds for infrastructure and development projects.

The federal government, it is argued, can help with incentives. Washington's Sustainable Communities program, Morrison noted, helped 12 counties in Northeast Ohio, along with their business leaders, county commissioners, mayors and metropolitan planning organizations, avoid the normal "turf" battles and formulate a regional business strategy.

Plus, he reported, young people are asking: Why aren't we using up-to-date information technology to pinpoint concentrations of jobs, of poverty, across entire regions, and then build corrective strategies around them?

A whole new approach to give legacy cities a better shot is proposed by Daniel Kildee, former Genesee County, Mich., (Flint) treasurer and president of the Center for Community Progress. Seventy percent of Michigan's population, he notes, lives on eight percent of the state's land - including places with concentrations of infrastructure but an eroded tax base. So why not adapt state policy to target subsidies for transportation and economic development to the eight percent territory, rather than spreading state investments, peanut butter-style, across the map? 

Can such ideas start turning the tables for legacy cities? The American Assembly report makes it clear: The time is now to start trying, very hard. 

And, with conviction, it's possible. Pittsburgh, steel and smoke behemoth of past times, beset by heavy population losses, has nonetheless rebuilt its economy and now prospers through higher education, high technology and medical advance.

In today's hard-hit Detroit, there's one growing demographic: well-educated professionals 25 to 40.

Maybe the turnaround to new legacies is not as impossible as we think.

Neal Peirce's e-mail address is

© 2012, The Washington Post Writers Group

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities or
 Nation's Cities Weekly.